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Mar 15, 2012
All the King's Men
Robert Penn Warren was the first Poet Laureate of the US, and though mostly known for his poetry, he did write one novel of some note, which shortly afterwards was turned into an Oscar winning movie, All the Kingís Men.
The 1949 Best Picture winner follows the career of populist politician Willie Stark, through the eyes of Jack Burden, a newspaper reporter assigned to cover Starkís run for county commissioner against a powerful political machine. He loses that race, but a tragedy at a local school built by a company with ties to the old boys club sinks the political machine and thrusts Stark back into prominence. He uses that prominence to mount a campaign for governor, with Burden jumping on board as political hatchet man. He loses the first time, but learns how to win, and four years later does. At first, he sets out to do all the good things for the people he said he would, but to do so he has to sink to the level of the political machine he defeated.
Soon Stark is throwing his political weight around to destroy all opposition. He forces a scandal plagued appointee to resign, a move which disgusts his attorney general to resign as well. What complicates matters even more is that Stark, who goes from woman to woman anyway, is having an affair with the attorney generalís niece, who happens to be Jackís ex-girlfriend, as well as the sister of Willieís choice to run a new state hospital he is building. When Starkís son, a football star, nearly kills his girlfriend in a drunk driving accident, the Governor uses his might to cover it up. When the girlís father turns up dead, the legislature has had enough and brings about impeachment proceedings.
At this point even Jack is about to turn away from Willie, and when the two go to see the ex-attorney general who is supporting the impeachment effort, Jack is reluctant to use dirt from the AGís past. The ex- attorney general crosses up everyone by killing himself. Jack, now thoroughly disgusted by Stark, tries to convince his friends that they can turn the people away from the governor, but when he goes to the impeachment trial, he sees hundreds of people out to support Stark. Stark wins the impeachment battle, but as heís leaving the doctor approaches him in the lobby and assassinates him.
There are some good points to this movie. Broderick Crawford turns in a wonderful performance as Stark, especially nailing the "Iím a hick" speech during the first gubernatorial campaign. In fact, Starkís public speaking improves greatly throughout the movie, a nice subtle touch showing how a politician becomes more polished as his career goes on.
However there is a lot to not like. John Ireland is particularly wooden as Burden, and itís never entirely clear why we should care about him anyway. Starkís descent into corruption is problematic as well, since he seemingly goes from principled man of the people to corrupt head of a political machine in the blink of an eye. We donít really see the fall from grace, we only see when he hits bottom, followed by an hour of Jack telling everyone who will listen how heís going to tell the entire state what Stark is really like, a task he never quite gets around to.
Warren made no secret of the fact that Stark is based on former Louisiana Governor Huey Long, and if this were a straight up biography of Long, it would be quite a bit better. Ken Burns directed a documentary about Long in 1985 which tells the story better than this can.
Of course 1949 just wasnít a good year for movies. Maybe the studios were still reeling from the consent decree, but they had a bad year all around. Of the other best picture nominees, only Twelve OíClock High has had a lasting impact, and that was a fairly run of the mill war movie. Not nominated was Adamís Rib, which put Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn together, but was not their best collaborative work. As weak as Twelve OíClock High is compared to other war movies of the era, it is still better than All the Kingís Men, which is weak for any era and any genre.